To seed or not to seed

There is no one “right” way to plant the green swaths of turf so many customers covet. A number of factors, including terrain, season, schedules, maintenance and seed and sod prices – to say nothing of both contractor and customer preferences – come into play when it’s time to decide between starting from scratch with seed or opting for the instant gratification of sod.

PRICE POINTS. Cost is one of the key factors for many customers in the market for new turf. Seed and sod prices vary by region, in part because of the different seed varieties used, but sod generally costs considerably more than seed.

For instance, Kevin Payne, president and owner of TenderCare Lawn in Derby, Kan., says he generally pays two to three times more for sod than he does for seed. Payne says (as of early June) sod costs $1.50 per yard, plus a $120 delivery and fuel charge per load.

In contrast, he pays on average about $1.30 per pound for the fescue blend his company uses on all lawns. Payne says it’s worth it to pay extra for a seed blend made for his region. To keep those seed costs down, Payne orders early. The company makes fall orders in bulk in mid-July. The company goes through 5 tons in the fall and pays upfront to save an additional 2 to 5 percent.

In comparison, Green Acres Landscape, a landscape design/build and maintenance company in Salem, Ore., in the heartland of turf seed producers, pays about 40 cents per square foot for sod and $120 per 50-pound bag for perennial rye, according to maintenance manager Chris Lachance.

Blence Landscaping in Downingtown, Pa., uses a high-quality fescue-rye mix that costs about $1.70 per pound. Like Payne, Blence Landscaping managing partner Ray Moran says using the mix costs more upfront than other seed, but it’s cheaper than the labor involved if seeding has to be redone.

Often landscaping companies can’t purchase sod directly from a sod farm because growers won’t deliver such small loads, which means they pay additional fees for collection and delivery charges to a middleman. “If you buy direct from the grower here, it’s probably 25 to 28 cents per square foot,” Moran says. “But we have to deal with an in-between person that holds it, so we’re paying 42 to 45 cents per square foot if we’re only buying 500 or 600 square feet.”

Fuel prices and weather also influence how much companies ultimately pay for sod. Monster Cuts in Chuluota, Fla., has worked exclusively with sod for about 10 years. President David Cusworth says prices are up around 5 percent from last year. “Everybody tells me that’s because of the weather, because the sod isn’t growing as well,” he says. “We seem to be getting good sod, though.”

Cusworth says that in his area near Orlando there is incredible competition from a lot of small contractors who do sod work, which means sod prices passed on to his customers have stayed the same for the past couple of years even as the amount he pays has increased. “We’ve had to swallow fluctuations because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be getting business,” he says.

“Most of the time it comes down to dollars and cents with people,” Moran says. For some customers – particularly those with high-end residential properties – the immediate value of a lush, green lawn outweighs the added cost of sod. “And they have the disposable income to do it,” Moran says.

CONSIDERING SEED. Although the cost-effectiveness of seed is one of the most persuasive reasons to opt for it over sod, there are plenty of other reasons why contractors encourage its use. Many contractors say seeding a lawn is a more sustainable option because of the deeper root system that develops with grass grown directly from seed.

Seeding can also be a particularly attractive option when customers want to improve existing landscapes without cutting out the entire lawn, Lachance says. To that end, Green Acres Landscape tries aerating, patching and seed slicing before tearing out problem turf. Similarly, TenderCare Lawn and Landscape core aerates or slit seeds existing lawns.

To increase productivity, contractors will hydroseed new lawns – a process of mixing seed, fertilizer and fiber-mulch with water and spraying it onto lawn areas.

Proponents say this approach works best on large, flat areas, greatly reduces soil erosion, helps seeds germinate faster and grass plants survive longer, and results in a more uniform distribution of seed, fertilizer and mulch.

Payne says that TenderCare Lawn and Landscape hydroseeds all new lawns where customers prefer seed over sod. However, he encourages customers to look at sod and seed options carefully.

“Even though we hydroseed and feel it is the best choice in seeding, it can and does wash in heavy rainfall. We let customers know that if all conditions are perfect the seed will do very well, but to plan on some overseeding if we get heavy rain,” he says.

Due to the likelihood of heavy rains and the increased chance of weeds and crabgrass in spring in Kansas, Payne says his company is more likely to encourage customers to opt for seed if they’re planting in the fall than in the spring. “Fall seeding generally has warm daytime temperatures and cool nights with more gentle rainfall,” Payne says. The narrower window for planting seed in some areas can certainly be a drawback, as is the time it takes for seeding to grow into an established lawn.

That’s why Payne stresses the importance of being honest with customers about what to expect. “We have lawns that we seed that come up like carpet, but I would rather not give a customer an unreal expectation,” he says.

GOING FOR SOD. Some of the challenges of working with seed are some of the things that make sod an attractive option. With sod, there’s no wait for a lush, green lawn because the already-growing grass comes ready to roll out or lay down in patches. In addition, Lachance says, there’s less concern over weed growth with sod. The window for sod installation is often much larger than that for spreading seed. In Kansas, sodding is typically possible all but about six weeks out of the year when the ground is frozen or covered in snow.

In the Pittsburgh area, Moran says sodding is a better option for work late in the fall because if seed is applied too late, the seed may not germinate and will rot over the winter. “We’ve had pretty good success with late sodding for new construction or commercial projects,” Moran says.

Temperature and precipitation are two key considerations when it comes to laying sod. If temperatures are in the 80s, Lachance prefers installing sod rather than spreading seed because seed “takes way more to keep watered, and with sod we can just water a few times a day.” In addition, he opts for sod when heavy spring and fall rains may result in seed runoff.

Sod’s resistance to heat is also an attractive attribute in Florida. In fact, that’s one reason Monster Cuts only installs sod. Cusworth estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the grass his company puts down is a St. Augustine derivative that withstands the heat particularly well.

Sod also can be beneficial on sites with a slope. “With sod, when you’re on a slope you can staple it to the ground to protect more from erosion, whereas with seeding you rely on matting material,” Moran says.

Yet there are times when sod may not be the best option, particularly in drought conditions. Although sod may not require as much watering as seed, careful watering is necessary so sod roots grow down into the soil. Because of minimal rainfall, as of early June 2015, Blence Landscaping had yet to do a single sod job because it’s too dry.

“Sod is a perishable item,” Moran says. “If you don’t get those roots to start forcing down, with the first dry spell the sod will burn up.”

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